By Anna McShane in China — He stopped with the piece of pizza midway toward his mouth. The tension on his face melted into relief like ice on a hot day. “Are you saying that there are other ways to follow Jesus?” he queried.
We had not seen Bai* for several years. In fact, he had completely cut off contact with us. All notes went unanswered. Then last fall we had dinner with a family who had hosted him for a homestay in Pennsylvania, and we sent him a picture. He replied briefly “I miss them.” When we reached out in February with a New Year’s greeting, he began to write. “I wasn’t sure if you would want to see me,” he said in a text, “because now I have nothing to do with Jesus.” We assured him that we wanted to see him very much because he was a friend, whether he had anything to do with Jesus or not.
How Bai met Jesus
Bai came to the US originally in 2013 to visit a friend, and stayed with a family from one of our supporting churches. He had serious spiritual discussions with the pastors and made a tentative profession of faith. When Bai returned to China, my husband connected with him at a coffee shop, and affirmed that Bai was serious about following Jesus. He eagerly accepted discipleship materials and scripture in Chinese.
We finished our China trip and headed home, but the next year when we came to lecture, Bai immediately wanted to see us. He traveled across the city each weekend to discussion groups at our apartment. He had made some spiritual progress, and was hungry to meet other believers. A huge baseball fan, he invited my husband to his campus to play ball with his friends and “hang out.”
That spring a young American we’d met in China also came to the discussion groups. This guy was a trophy of grace, raised in a dysfunctional family, and gloriously saved from addictions while in the military. Believing God could use him in China, he’d diligently learned Chinese, and was teaching in an English cram school.
Why Bai moved away from Jesus
After we left, our young American friend carried on the discipleship group, meeting weekly. Unfortunately the informal, unpressured atmosphere we sought to create with Chinese young adults changed into a very confrontational evangelistic gathering. That summer, Bai and the American guy traveled back to the States, where they stayed for two weeks with a large Christian family — a godly family but a very rigidly strict family. The version of Jesus that Bai saw in that home was the military discipline of the army officer father.
Returning to China, the young American began to pressure Bai to follow this model of discipleship. Bai was told how many hours a day he needed to spend in quiet time, how many verses of scripture he should memorize daily, and how many times a week he had to cross town — an hour and half each way — to meet for worship with his new mentor. After a few months, Bai bailed. If this was Jesus, he wanted nothing to do with Jesus.
Our hearts ached for Bai. Other young Chinese friends began to tell us how this young American had pressured them to follow Jesus in a way that was fine for ex-military, but not for Chinese. All attempts to connect with Bai went unanswered. Until now, three years later.
‘Can I start again?’
We had hardly landed in China before Bai came to meet us. He’d matured, now a graduate and working with an American company, and his warmth was palpable. Over lunch we began to gently probe and ask why we’d not seen him for so long. He began to pour out his frustration at the Jesus model that the young American had sought to force him to follow. We listened and carefully responded.
“You mean that young guy doesn’t work with you? I thought you were his boss,” Bai said.
“No,” we said. “We met him here in a restaurant. We’re not connected at all.”
As we ate, we talked about how following Jesus isn’t a set of rules and regulations. How scripture and fellowship are vital to our growth, but how believers around the world are free to follow Jesus in their own cultural patterns. Unlike some “religions” where everything is prescribed, following Jesus is a life of freedom and joy. This is a particularly striking concept in a culture where both the government and one of the dominant religions — Buddhism — both involve complicated lists of dos and don’ts.
“I didn’t know,” he said, finally connecting the pizza with his mouth. “I want to follow Jesus, but I’m Chinese. Can I start again?”
- We’ve gathered resources about interacting with Buddhists and engaging them in spiritual conversation on our Path to Peace page.
- He tried hard to be a good Buddhist, but found no peace there: Though he excelled at following the precepts, he still felt exhausted, worried, and insecure. Now he’s discovered true peace — and he can’t stop telling others about it.
- Intro to Buddhism: A three-part series covering basic Buddhist beliefs, symbols and traditions, and how to engage Buddhists in meaningful spiritual conversations.
- An enlightening chat between a Christian and Buddhist monks: Our worker visits a famous Thai temple for a wide-ranging discussion on matters of life and death.
- ‘It doesn’t work.’ And yet, she still calls herself Buddhist: With nothing to believe in, many young Chinese are turning to Buddhism — and finding it doesn’t bring peace to their frantic, high-pressure lives.
- A shrine destroyed: A new believer rips down the idols in her home, even though she fears she could be cursed.
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Banner photo by GnuDoyng – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4358468